Rites of Passage: Mid-Life Marriage

It was a normal blind date at a nice restaurant, when the banker asked me some getting-to-know-you questions.
“Are you originally from Chicago?”
“Where do you work?” And,
“Why aren’t you married?”

Why aren’t you married? That’s the number one question on a single woman’s hit list. Running close, in second place is: “Why isn’t a woman like you married?” The latter moves to first place if any of the following adjectives modify woman: smart, pretty, wonderful. Why isn’t a wonderful woman like you married? Those positive adjectives only underscore the absurdity of the situation. You’re such a catch but still at sea.

Over the course of my extensive singlehood, I collected an arsenal of retorts to questions about my single status:
“Because you haven’t introduced me to him yet.”
“I haven’t found a man that makes me want to share my closets.”
“My husband is still married to his first wife.” And,
“I haven’t met the right person.”

Past dates have also identified reasons for my long-tenured singledom. I’ve been told:
“You’re too independent.”
“You’re not vulnerable enough.” And,
“You’re ovaries are too old.”

Okay, the guy didn’t actually say that to me. But he implied it. He asked, on the first date in a nice restaurant after finding out where I was from and where I worked, “Do you want to have children?”
“Sure, but I want to be married first. Anyway, I have plenty of time.”
“You’re over 30, I wouldn’t be too sure,” he said, and then told the manicurist who had fixed us up his real assessment. He felt I was too old to have babies. Had filed me under reproductively undesirable. He wanted a younger, more sure thing mother for his children.

I married when I was 48 years old for the first time, to someone I had known, on and off, for 12 years. Being so used to the “why aren’t you married” question I was caught off guard when, post-wedding a twice-divorced college friend of mine asked: “Why did you get married at this point in your life?”

I didn’t have a quick answer to this two-part question. Why get married, period? Why get married when you’re past child bearing and rearing age and all the benefits of a relationship can be had without marriage? Why? Why not?
“I married for love and adventure,” I answered.

Marriage was one of life’s great adventures that I had never experienced. Not even pretend experienced. I had never lived with a man before I married. I’m not even sure a man ever stored a toothbrush or razor at my apartment before I married. Not that I’m against co-habitation before marriage, but merging without a contractual commitment never made sense to me, especially as I got older and bought and decorated and redecorated my space in my way. I liked my space. I liked the way I cluttered my space. Control is my friend. Why would I give it up without a license?

Man-Who-Would-Become-Husband, and I met on a blind date in June, when I was 36 and he was a 48-year-old, divorced, father of a college-age daughter. I wanted children and wondered if he wanted more. I broached the subject while kissing on my couch one night.
“Do you like children?”
“Of course, I have a daughter.”
“I mean would you have any more?”
“I could but…”
“You could, good.”
“Isn’t it a bit early to be talking about babies?”

Yes, it was. We dated maybe six times over the course of that summer, and the relationship faded as summer did. His impression lingered though. In a journal entry on the following New Year’s Eve I summed up each date of the last twelve months with three words. Except for Man-Who-Would-Become-Husband, he rated four: “handsome, intelligent, good cook.”

Fast-forward eight years to a charity art auction. A small event, maybe 75 people. Hoping to meet new people – men – a girlfriend and I dressed up in leather skirts and boots and headed off to an up-and-coming but not-quite-there-yet Chicago neighborhood.
“Oh no,” I said as we walked in the room.
“What?”
“See that man over there.” I threw my head to the left and described Man-Who-Would-Become-Husband. “Tall, salt and pepper hair, blue eyes, blonde woman on his arm.”
“Yes…”
“I went out with him years ago and just never called him back.” I told my friend that he was the only man I had dated – if five dates constitutes dating, and in your 30s it just might –to whom I wished I had given more of a chance.
“But he was such a man,” I said, “and I was used to boys.” He told me jokes in German and knew about art past the Impressionists. We danced in Greek restaurants, on his deck, and in my den. But I let him go.

That night I bought a piece of art that I didn’t even like just to spend time talking to him at the auction table. I made sure he had my telephone number and the following week we went to dinner where he did not ask, “Why aren’t you married?” I learned that he had just started seeing someone in London and I told him about a budding relationship of mine in Wales.

For the next two years we casually went out to dinner when we were both in town. His cross-Atlantic relationship ended before mine. For a year, he patiently listened to me agonize over whether or not I should marry the man from Wales. Then one night on our way home from dinner, as he placed me in a cab, he said:
“I’ll dance at your wedding if you marry this guy, but if you don’t, I think we could have something here.”

The walk down the aisle didn’t come right away. My need for control and doing things my way tested and retested our relationship. I insisted we stop at the edge of the crosswalk; he insisted on standing a foot back from the curb. I needed to know the exact directions to a location, and follow them. He expressed a boyish delight in the serendipity of getting lost and then found.

But nothing was more irritating to him than my popcorn rule. I insisted on my own small, no butter popcorn on movie dates. He was perplexed and mildly put off. It was as if I had committed Dating Crime #1. If I couldn’t share something as inconsequential as popcorn could I share the New York Times Magazine? The last squeeze of toothpaste? The final drop of milk?

In my defense, I was used to buying my own movie ticket, my own diet soda and especially my own popcorn. I’m not selfish. I just like to ration my popcorn so it lasts through the first half hour of the movie. Most people I know finish their popcorn before the seventh preview. If I share I can’t control the pace and therefore, my satisfaction.
On one typical movie date night, after we found seats in the front row behind the break in seats, he went to the refreshment stand.
“A small, no butter popcorn and medium Diet Coke for me, please,” I ordered.

He returned with two popcorns, as I had hoped. One child’s size, no butter for him and the jumbo tub of popcorn, no butter for me. Jumbo, as in big-enough-to-feed-the-rest-of-the-audience-please-take-some-as-you-walk-by-popcorn. Jumbo, as in see-how-ridiculous-it-is-to-insist-on-your-own-popcorn-when-you’re-in-an-intimate-relationship-with-someone-popcorn. I got the message as well as everyone else in the movie theater.

So on the next movie outing, in a spirit of compromise and in an effort to see if I could live outside my control zone, I agreed to share a medium, no butter popcorn. Sharing that first bag of popcorn was as stressful as I had imagined. His big hand, which never seemed big before, opened and closed like one of those claws in the arcade game that tries to grab a stuffed animal or plastic encased prize but never does. He grabbed a gross of kernels and started eating. His fist moved from bag to mouth, bag to mouth. I watched him eat and slowly put one, two, maybe three kernels in my mouth hoping that he would see this as behavior he should adopt.

Bits of popcorn decorated his sweater. Staring at me. Daring me to leave them alone. Popcorn shrapnel trailed from the bag to my jeans, to his jeans, and beyond. I cleaned up after him, off of him and off of me. If we were going to make it as a couple I needed to take control in a non-controlling way. I spread a napkin over my lap and created a little bowl-like shape. I poured a large amount of popcorn out of the bag into my makeshift receptacle and handed it back to him.

“It’s all yours,” I said and proceeded to eat by the 1s, 2s and 3s. He didn’t drop as much popcorn on our laps. I got my fair share and munched happily 30 minutes into the movie. I turned to him and said,
“You know, this could work.”

A couple more years and a few more adjustments to coupledom passed before we married. Bit by bit my singledom behavior and habitat have changed: I surrendered half my closet space. I eat real meals for dinner instead of just grazing on pretzels, yogurt, and Diet Coke. I’ve relinquished control over the remote control and sometimes watch the Military Channel, car auctions, and the German news. Some things will never change…my night owl will never understand his morning lark (and vice versa), driving directionless still frustrates me, and I get antsy standing behind a gaggle of pedestrians at a crosswalk.

There is one change that I didn’t make from my single days. My name. This doesn’t bother Husband. “It’s a sign of the times,” he says. “My first wife won’t give up my name, and my second wife won’t take it.” As I see it, there are only so many changes that could be accommodated in my middle age marriage.

14 Comments

  1. Great post, Julie! It’s all about the accommodation, isn’t it? Glad you have made it work!
    Karen

    • Julie (Author)

      Thanks. Accommodation is an every day task!

  2. Helene Bludman

    Great post, Julie. I totally understand about the popcorn, but I’m just the opposite. My husband and I have always shared a big container. It would feel odd to do it any other way. Funny how old habits die hard.

    • Julie (Author)

      They wouldn’t be habits if they weren’t so difficult to change. We share now and I make a popcorn bowl with a napkin and ignore the shrapnel!

  3. I could relate to a good deal of your single life – thinking of my own before marrying into my mid-30s (and dealing with the “why aren’t you married?” song and dance.

    I could relate again, thinking of being divorced in my 40s, my ex remarried and into his entire new life, and the years that followed of “why aren’t you REmarried?” – even more annoying than the first go-round considering I was raising two kids on my own and constantly on the prowl for more work to afford it.

    The issues of control are difficult. Not for the reasons some toss out so disparagingly (“you’re a control freak”) – but because it is comfortable and a process to “own ourselves” and a sense of the rightness in that. So many women compromise too much in marriage (as did I), so to let someone else in isn’t, to me, about being controlling, but being oneself and not wanting to lose that.

    I think you’re brave for marrying. I think your husband is as well, a second time.

    Loved the way you wrote this. Great flow, self-awareness, specificity. A pleasure to read.

    • Julie (Author)

      Thank you for such a thoughtful read and reply. I like how you discuss control. It’s just how I make my life work. We all have systems and processes that work best for us. I’ve always said that marriage is not for the faint of heart – especially in middle-age.

  4. …I’m still nodding my head at the “I haven’t found a man that makes me want to share my closets.” SO TRUE!

    I too got married for the first time a little on the late side (35yo) but he was sure worth the wait!

    • Julie (Author)

      It would take a very special man to want to completely share the closets! Alas, we share them with the special ones we find.

  5. I so appreciated and enjoyed reading this—though I’ve been married (twice) most of my adult life, your story and words touched on issues that felt familiar—including the popcorn! Beautifully written, too.

    • Julie (Author)

      Thanks Darryle. Learning to be married was more difficult than I expected. But lucky me, I believe in continuing education!

  6. Julie, your story feel authentic and the details of your hesitance are right there for us to see. Enjoyed learning about how you and your husband met and, ultimately, married. Thanks for sharing!

    • Julie (Author)

      Thanks Ladies. It was a long 33 years of dating, but I found a great one!

  7. Great piece. I think it is all about adjustment and accommodation and making things work — in some ways, it’s a blessing to be so aware of all that in maturity instead of bumbling along assuming that love is all you need when you’re younger.

    • Julie (Author)

      I still seem to be bumbling along but with a bit more maturity, yes!

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